Scientists are testing an eye implant that could restore vision to thousands of blind and partially-sighted people, including those with age-related macular degeneration.
Robin Millar, 60, a music producer from South-West London, was one of the first in the UK to have the procedure.
'When I look at an area of light, I can see it - for example, a window,' said Robin Millar
My eyesight started to deteriorate when I was eight. I began to find I couldn’t see anything at all in the dark, and had tunnel vision as well by the age of ten.
I had countless tests, and when I was 16 the doctors told me I had retinitis pigmentosa. Until then they had told my parents but not me.
They explained this was a disease that gradually destroys the retina, the tissue at the back of the eye.
The retina has lots of receptors which receive images, and its job is to convert these into signals to the brain, allowing you to see things. The disease is hereditary and, on reflection, my diagnosis wasn’t a total surprise, as I had about ten relatives who had it, including a great uncle and cousins.The doctors told me it was incurable and it was likely I would be blind by the age of 40.I felt terrible — they gave me a white stick there and then.By the time I was 20, I couldn’t read, and when I was 33 I was totally blind.
My children, Scarlett and Crusoe, were born in 1983 and 1985. I got fuzzy glimpses of Scarlett, but I’ve never seen Crusoe. My partner of 20 years, Shelley, has always been really supportive, and in fact my blindness was an advantage for my job as a music producer, as my hearing was more attuned. I’ve produced 150 gold, silver and platinum discs and 44 number ones, working with Sade, Eric Clapton and Sting.
A couple of years ago, I heard about the new operation through a friend who’s a doctor. I went to see the doctors leading the trial.
They explained the surgery involved implanting a tiny microchip with 1,500 sensors into the back of the eye, to replace those in the retina that have been destroyed. The idea is these sensors will stimulate nerves in the retina that create an image in the brain. The microchip is attached to a battery unit which you carry in your pocket. The doctors explained it would give me only flashes of light rather than full, permanent vision, but if it worked it would let me see some things.
In time, I’d possibly be able to recognise people from several metres away.
Last year, I heard I’d been selected for the trial. In March this year, the team implanted the microchip in my right eye during a ten-hour operation at King’s College Hospital.
I was very sore around the head when I came round and I had to lie face down for three days before I was allowed home afterwards.
After three weeks, when the surgery had settled down, the power unit was connected and switched on by pressing a button. Within five seconds I realised I could see something.
The doctors showed me images on a computer screen, and I could make something out.
The next night I dreamed in colour for the first time since I went blind — until then I’d always dreamed in black and white and as if with bad eyesight.
The doctors were really excited about this, as it meant the disease hadn’t affected the brain’s ability to see colour.
At the moment, I’m switching the power unit on for two hours a day. When I look at an area of light, I can see it — for example, a window, which looks like a rectangle of flashing silver light, or a white dinner plate in a dark room. I go back for tests once a month and we’ll decide soon whether to do my left eye, too. The doctors don’t really know how much I might see in the end, but one of their early patients who used a prior form of the implant had vision that was still improving after several months.
This operation has re-attached me to life. No longer do I just have to sit in a room listening to life.
Professor Robert MacLaren is an ophthalmologist at the Oxford Eye Hospital. He says:
Retinitis pigmentosa is the name given to a group of diseases of the retina — the light-sensitive tissue in the back of the eye. About 10,000 people in the UK are affected and it runs in families.
However, in 50 per cent of cases a person may not be able to identify other relatives who have it because you can carry the gene without developing the disease.
As the retina slowly degenerates and loses its ability to transmit images to the brain, there’s a progressive loss of vision. Until this new procedure, this has invariably led to incurable blindness.
The new operation involves having a wafer-thin, 3mm square microchip made of gold and iridium with 1,500 sensors implanted in the back of the eye.
These sensors basically do the job of the retina — they convert light falling on them into an electrical signal that is picked up by nerves and transmitted to the visual processing region of the brain, so creating an image.
As well as retinitis pigmentosa, we hope that age-related macular degeneration — wear and tear in the retina, which affects almost 240,000 people in the UK — could also benefit from this procedure in future. Made by a German company, the microchips have been in trials in Germany for six years. Mr Millar was one of two British patients to undergo it.
Both patients have regained useful vision within weeks of their surgery. They could detect light and see white objects on a dark background.
These results might not seem extraordinary, but for a previously blind person to be able to know where a room’s doors and windows are is extremely useful.
The operation begins with a 2.5cm square magnetic coil being implanted under the skin behind the ear. The microchip is implanted through a small flap cut with a scalpel into the side of the eye, which allows us to slide it gently under the retina.
It is held in position with 20 to 30 stitches, and then we thread a fine wire from the coil under the scalp muscle and connect it to the microchip.
We then attach he coil through the skin to another magnet and small coil placed on the skin behind the ear. In turn, this external coil is connected by wire to a plastic power unit about twice the size of a smartphone that patients can carry in their pocket.
It is run by eight AA batteries which last for 40 hours of vision and can be replaced at any time.
The hope is vision will continue to improve, as the patient’s brain relearns how to process an image and new nerve cells start to grow between the eye and the brain.
Up to ten further patients with retinitis pigmentosa will be treated as part of this trial.
We’re still looking for suitable people — to be considered, patients need to have a diagnosis of retinitis pigmentosa with advanced vision loss and be referred by their GP to me or Tim Jackson at King’s College Hospital.
The cost of this treatment could be up to £100,000 per operation, but this will fall quickly once it becomes more established.
Source: The Daily Mail Online